Yoga Dos and Don'ts: Elbow Alert
Hyperextended joints can be a sign of false strength says writer and yoga teacher Shannon Wianecki.
Photo Credit: Thomas Kachadurian
In one of my first yoga classes, my teacher pointed to my elbows. A quick glance in the mirror revealed that my arms were bent at a most unnatural angle—almost backward—in many poses. I discovered that I habitually hyperextended my elbows, forcing the joints to take the strain, rather than the muscles.
I don’t know when I developed this habit, but I certainly intensified it while waitressing after college. I was determined to be every inch as tough as the male waiters who hoisted huge trays loaded with dishes onto their shoulders. Problem was, I didn’t have the upper-body strength to back up my bravado. The only way I could carry the trays was to lock my elbow joint, wedging bone against bone, so my arm wouldn’t collapse. I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing. And it’s likely the many yoga students I see today don’t know they’re doing it, either.
Hyperextension of joints is chronic in the yoga world. It is common to see models and even teachers demonstrate a beautiful ustrasana (camel pose)—with backward elbows.
When I began practicing yoga, I was already experiencing chronic pain in my wrists because of the pressure inflicted by my distorted elbows. Stressing a joint in this way, taking it to the extreme edge of its range of motion, is a recipe for injury. The cartilage wears down.
Our bodies have an innate symmetry. When the bones are properly aligned, energy flows like water or electricity. Hyperextending a joint pinches off this current. Like a kink in a hose, it causes pressure to congregate. The solution is to ease off the joint, align the bones, and activate the muscles. If the muscles are weak, we must be willing to accept the starting point and grow from there.
A person who relies on locked joints to get into certain poses will never be able to advance to more difficult poses. Arm balances such as bakasana (crane pose) require real muscular strength. Even more than strength, they require surrender. Bravado is useless here; we can’t force or fake our way into balance.
I was so used to locking my elbows that keeping them straight felt strange at first. I had to relearn how to carry things and how to support my own weight. Unfamiliar with the effort, my muscles burned. Over time, that changed. Today, I can still force my elbows into the danger zone, but it no longer feels natural to me. My elbow flexors and triceps have grown. More importantly, my awareness has expanded. I discovered one of yoga’s powerful lessons: less is more. Pushing myself to the limit isn’t ahimsa (the yogic principle of nonviolence), and it has consequences. I no longer have to prove my worth, on the mat or in life. Being willing to do less allows me to be more.
In weight-bearing poses such as downward-facing dog (adho mukha svanasana), tabletop, or camel (ustra-sana)—pay attention to your elbows. Your inner elbow should have a soft valley in it, not a peak. Bend it slightly to correct. Whenever your hands are on the ground, press into the floor with your entire palm, especially the base of your index finger. Feel the rebound action as your muscles engage.
The same follows when you raise your arms in standing poses, such as warrior II (virabhadrasana II). Bend your elbows slightly and activate your hands through your fingertips.